I remember it clearly. The two of us were sitting up in the bed, the bedroom of our three-bedroom house, after a refreshing afternoon nap. My wife Maggie and I decided on that day that we were serious enough about letting go of our possessions to finally go public. So, I blogged our plans. (You can find that blog here.) Our journey has far exceeded our initial plan to let go of a mere 1000 items in one year. Today marks one-year.
A Spiritual Journey that Confounds
We’ve been at times fascinated, at times overwhelmed, and at times frustrated by the reactions of people when we’ve talked about our journey of Emptying Barns. So, let me clarify up front: this is motivated by our faith. It is not about “starting over” or saving money on moving vans. Because it is motivated by our faith the process is a spiritual journey.
The spiritual aspects of this journey are multifaceted. There are two primary spiritual aspects of note, however.
Justice & Compassion: Looking Outward This spiritual aspect is best expressed in the question, how do my actions as a human being impact creation? This question leads me to a concern for stewardship, the care of the planet upon which we all live, and a desire to use only my share of resources. As a Christian, the Genesis creation narratives, as well as the arc of the whole Bible, inform my sense of responsibility to the ecology of our world. When the biblical text refers to dominion, the original Hebrew text implies a sense of caring for, much like good parents care for their children. My goal is to have as limited a resource-use footprint as I can manage.
But creation includes more than wheat stalks, migratory birds, polar bears, and the sea turtle. Creation includes other human beings. My actions and inactions also harm or help human beings. When I eat chocolate harvested by the forced labor of children, I contribute to their enslavement. If I accept as “just how it is,” unjust economic systems than I am not acting according to my faith as fully as I should. Because of the accidental location of my birth (white, male, Anglo, American), it is probably impossible to fully avoid participating in systemic injustice but I am obligated by my faith to try.
The interconnectedness of all of creation means any action I take, or fail to take, will ripple and influence people, plants, and animals I will never see. But I can choose to be hospitable to the “least of these.” I can choose to use resources wisely and share freely. I can choose to have less, so others may have more.
Looking Inward & Outward for the Divine I can also choose to have less stuff so that I can see the divine in others. This second spiritual aspect of the Emptying Barns journey is about freedom. It is about the freedom from my possessions. Whether we admit it or not, our possessions, their acquisition and maintenance, shift our focus away from the Divine that is within and between each of us. When we use our time earning money to buy the latest gadget or to afford housing big enough to store things with which we simply cannot part, we take time away from others. We take away time which might be better spent in relationship with someone who needs us. The result is our stuff keeps us from seeing the face of God in others.
Likewise, our acquisition and maintenance of material possessions distract us from time spent in silence with God. The noise created by our things keep us from noticing the Divine. And, though, I believe God never leaves us, that God is ever challenging us toward the most loving action, the noise of possessions can mask the still, small voice. If we are to truly respond lovingly, to be who we truly are, our senses need to be tuned to hearing and discerning the luring of what I call the Holy Spirit.
An Experience of Understanding & Liberation not Sadness
One of the confusions that people have about our journey is that they think that this is a path of sadness. They mistakenly believe that our happiness is tied into our possessions. It is not. Yes, I have felt temporary sadness as I let go of some of my objects. I have discovered, however, that the sadness is not tied to the object but to a memory.
For example, letting go of my large collection of Matchbox cars caused me to burst into sudden tears. It is not the cars that I grieved. Rather, it is the joy of being with my brother for hours as we played with those cars that I grieved. We live in different cities separated by thousands of miles and rarely spend time together. I miss him but I no longer need to store a box of old toys.
A typical comment from people who we tell of our Emptying Barns experience is, “I could never do that!” Part of my own hesitancy in letting go of some of my possessions reflects a lack of trust in the extravagant, abundant love of God. I have mistakenly believed, if not in word in action, that I need my things to be secure. My security comes from relationships with the Divine in others, the Divine in myself, and what I call the Holy Spirit. As I’ve become more in tune to the Divine luring and nudging I’ve found less need to have things around me.
Giving away my possessions brings joy. Since my grandmother died twenty-three years ago we have stored quilts that she made. The handiwork is remarkable. Some of them she made with my great-grandmother. At most we have pulled them out every three years, looked at them, marveled at them, and then put them back in the box. I admit little joy from these objects until we gave them away. They are now the possession of the Woodford County (Kentucky) Historical Society and on display. I cannot adequately describe in words the joy that I feel knowing that others can see and appreciate the great love and skill my grandmother sewed into those quilts. I would never have felt this joy had I not let go of them.
A Continuing Journey
We will leave for our new home in Portland, Oregon with our goal achieved. When we leave on Monday morning we will carry with us only what fits in our two cars. While I am pleased we have gone from a three-bedroom home to a two-bedroom duplex to a studio apartment, our journey is not over. We still have far more possessions than we need.
That is why I am once again making a public commitment to continue to let go of things. I am making a commitment to embracing the Divine within and between all of us. I am committing to more fully embracing the path on which God calls me.